Murdering Your Darlings Is Not Enough

     According to Rob Parnell, (, “Murder your darlings” was a phrase first coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (or Fitzgerald or Faulkner or Nabakov or even Stephen King, depending on who you believe). I once saw this phrase in sticker form years ago on a fellow writer’s binder. She was a delightful young lady with dandelion yellow hair, great blue eyes, and a wicked sense of humor. Her husband called her a “tamed psychopath”. I asked her about the meaning behind the sticker and she told me that murdering your darlings basically means killing or “editing” out the best parts of your stories. Moreover, those luscious, beautiful lines of writing that may have been given to you during the midnight hours of laborious writing or handed to you from above and sealed with a lacey ribbon by the Goddess-Muse-of-All-Things-Literary should be slashed out with your pen – (preferably with ink as red as blood so that it looked like you attempted suicide a la wrist on the paper). Huh. Why?
I asked the same thing. WHY? Well, some writers think that these darling, pet words, phrases, and such are keeping you from being a better writer. Crazy, huh? Maybe. Unnecessary? Well, only at first.
      After reading Parnell’s wonderful article, I have to agree with him that destroying the very lines, phrases, passages, and pages that give us an incentive to write and to write more is overkill. Words are precious, priceless, and worth protecting. As a new writer, they should be cherished. HOWEVER, as we grow and blossom as writers, Parnell makes it clear that with time and practice, the words flow easier and are no longer so sacred. His explanation was so point on that I just had to copy and paste it word for word here: “As you progress in your writing career, you become less touchy about your words. You have to. Editors hack them around without mercy. Agents get you to rewrite great swathes of text they don’t like. Publishers cut out whole sections as irrelevant.” Wow.
      Now, with that aside, I shall discuss the other “darlings” that we writers take great pride in writing about – our characters. Strong characters drive the plot of any great story. There are characters that we love to hate and characters we relish in hating to love. In middle school I read a book called, “A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov. The main character, Pechorin, is arrogant, cold, heartless, and as I read his page by page exploits, all the while cringing, I couldn’t help but admire him in some sick, twisted way. As literary works go, he is one of the best anti-heroes ever created. I will not spoil what happens at the end of the book, for those of you who have not read it, but I was satisfied because I knew that any other ending would not have done justice to the pages that preceded it.
      As an avid reader and a writer, I’ve often reflected on books that I have finished and adored even despite the tears of bitter sweet beginnings, middles, and endings. “Flowers in the Attic” comes to mind. I read it as a teenager and I remember quite vividly how much I hated the grandmother – but especially the cruel, wicked, and greedy mother of the main characters in the book. Yes, I did love to hate her and I yearned and yearned that justice would be swift for the Dollanganger children. Unfortunately, justice seemed so bloody slow. Andrews, the author of this classic book knew what she was doing and did it quite well. This author chose to murder her darling characters in that book – literally – so that the reader, who had become quite attached to them, would die a little too. So, once emotionally invested, one just has to read the rest of it – even if your favorite character (darling) dies smack dab in the middle, like in Tsugumi Ohba’s “Death Note”, a fantastic and beautifully illustrated graphic novel. This writer did what I call the unthinkable and yet ultimately badass. He had the ruthless audacity to murder (many readers) most favorite character in the middle of the series and this character was also (in my opinion) the only individual worthy of thwarting the main character’s plans and goals. This little juggernaut to the reader’s psyche was tantamount to killing off Sherlock Holmes and letting Dr. Moriarty play his macabre game of shadows all alone. This character’s death, in “Death Note” (who I shall not mention in case you want to read it) for me, was unexpected and I grieved and mourned for him in the worse way. HOW COULD YOU, OHBA, my mind raged and wailed! Like a petulant child I sulked away refusing to read anymore of the series, due to this great and terrible loss. And yet, (months later) only because I had learned to utterly despise the main character, Light Yagami, (an anti-hero that I loved to hate) and wanted him to pay for all of his dastardly deeds, did I decide to read on to find out what would happen to him. Would he pay for his crimes? Would he die? Or would he get away with it all? I read on. I persevered and again, I wasn’t disappointed with the ending. If Ohba had failed to paint the other main character, Light, with such a sinister brush, I don’t think killing off his foil and rival would have worked as tragically and gorgeously. As a result, I as a reader would have been sorely disappointed.
     When I was much, much younger and merely dabbled with writing – not serious writing mind you, but writing for the mere pleasure of creating – I thought myself cruel for even thinking about assassinating one of my “children” and often cringed at the idea of killing off any of my characters, be they minor or major. Like a tiny god, I enjoyed creating this emotion here, this obstacle there, but I had not yet learned the cathartic joy of killing off characters – oh yes, even my darlings – my most favorite characters whom I never thought I could treat with such unfairness I killed off or at least made them wish they had died. A fellow writer and friend of mine, Tami, taught me how writers often play god by allowing our characters to go through incredibly horrible situations because killing them is not enough. Suffering must come first. Hardships must be endured whether they are small or great. Problems that characters encounter must, as I said before, must serve a purpose and in some way be connected to the ultimate goal. My friend, Tami would often laugh and joke about how cruel they (our characters) must think we are. Sometimes, I have conversations with my characters and tell them quite lovingly, “This is for your own good. It will make you grow. You cannot have the rose without the thorns, my darling. Your friends will die, but first they will betray you and then I will rip them from the pages of your world. Endure.” Thank God they cannot truly talk back! I shudder at the thought of what they would say . . . or do if they could manifest into flesh and seek revenge for my viciousness!
     But . . . there is a purpose to all of this pain and torment. Or at least there should be. In one book I recently finished reading, the main character is not only accused of murder, the love of his life is kidnapped and nearly ravished by the true murderer . . . and finally the main character is shot and barely escapes with his life. Yet in the end he triumphed! The experiences that the main character suffered through served several purposes: drawing out compassion in the reader and making it the main character’s driving force within the book as he moved along trying to solve his own problems. Stagnant characters make stagnant stories and characters that I grew to admire were anything but stagnant. I cared about this character on a personal level and as I turned each page, skipping dinner, even skipping sleep in order to find out what happens next, I constantly rooted him on, all the while holding my breath in anticipation for his victory! It’s because the author did what Hemingway is quoted as saying best, “when writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature”.
     Likewise, as a blossoming writer, I’m learning that it is okay to let my “people” suffer. It is okay to have them fight against well placed obstacles in their path. I’m learning that it is okay for my “people” to lose loved ones, limbs, and even their very lives because even though life is beautiful and unfair that is what makes us ALIVE. It’s the “little deaths” that matter along the way. As Robert Frost said, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”, right?
      However, I often wonder if we writers (who I have called with much endearment and tenderness “certifiably insane” have another reason altogether for the punishment we whip out on our people (major, minor, etc.) in order to elicit tears from our readers. Perhaps, we do this to obtain the sometimes lack of control we experience in our own daily lives. Perhaps, we are creating an illusion of control? One of my favorite quotes that I have pasted in one of my journals is by Bennett Cerf, which reads: “Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman’s name out of a satire then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to be a writer — and if so, why?”
      Maybe, just maybe we are “tamed psychopaths” hungry for power and a thirst for control that we can never truly quench during our ephemeral lifetimes?
      Nah . . .
      Fellow writers, let me know how you would answer Cerf’s question. Why do you want to be a writer? What makes you go even madder when you go a week or more without writing? Comments are always welcome and appreciated!

2 thoughts on “Murdering Your Darlings Is Not Enough

  1. I love writing because I can use my charcters to a) see how I would react in an unusual situation b) see how others react. Because by writing a character’s reaction you are constantly asking ‘would they do that, is that them?’ And if not, why not. It’s in essence a study of humanity and reason and consequence and I love following those little rabbit holes. A wonderful blog post and greatly entertaining, meandering between story and analysis in all the right places 🙂

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